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Ocean safety in Hawai’i —how to survive a rip current

Hawai’i is home to over a million residents who, thanks to a near-perfect climate, enjoy thousands of miles of alluring and captivating beaches throughout the year. With millions of visitors flocking annually to island shores, there are plenty of opportunities for things to go terribly wrong. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, some 6,000 people drown each year in the US, of those, more than 60 are Hawai’i residents and visitors.* Many others are rescued. What accounts for these statistics, and how can we ensure safety for all?

Reasons for ocean casualties

  • Lack of public awareness
  • Inappropriate supervision
  • Overestimation of ability
  • Underlying health problems
  • Ignorance of ocean conditions

A report issued by the Hawai’i State Department of Health says that high on the state’s wish list is the future implementation of “…a beach rating system, much like the ones used at ski slopes, which would alert beachgoers to the risk level of a particular beach.” While many island beaches are protected by lifeguards, safety warning signs, and, in the case of Hanauma Bay—a water safety video—ocean accidents and drownings still occur far too often. This is especially true for visitors, who often have little knowledge of ocean conditions, rip currents, or big wave experience.

Ten ways to protect yourself and others

  1. Learn about local weather and beach conditions
  2. Check with lifeguards if you are not sure about conditions or swimming areas
  3. Familiarize yourself with warnings and signs, and obey them
  4. Learn to swim, and teach children to swim at an early age
  5. Properly supervise children; swim near life guards when possible
  6. Use the buddy system: never swim, surf, or dive alone (or pick ‘opihi alone!**)
  7. Avoid alcohol; it impairs judgement and your ability to swim effectively
  8. Do not use air-filled or foam toys in place of US Coast Guard approved life jackets
  9. Use a break-away leash when body boarding or surfing; don’t go out on a raft if you can’t swim
  10. Watch for dangerous waves and rip currents; never turn your back to the ocean

How to spot a rip current

A rip current is often mistakenly called an undertow, but an undercurrent doesn't actually exist, only an offshore current is present. This current is produced by surf pushing water up the beach slope, and gravity pulling it back, causing dangerously strong rivers of water offshore. To spot a rip current, look for discolored, choppy, foamy water moving in a channel away from shore. DO NOT SWIM in such a current.

If you accidently find yourself in a rip current, don’t fight it by trying to swim straight to shore. Instead, swim parallel to shore until you notice the current slacken, then, swim to shore. Most of these currents are narrow and a short swim will get you safely back to the beach. (See video.)

By following good beach safety tips, you and your family can make your stay in Hawai’i a safe and memorable one, and locals can regularly enjoy the spectacular beaches of their island home.

*Hawaii Department of Health, 2000-2004 statistics.

**An edible limpet that grows on rocks, often near rough water.


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